Threshold Concepts for Learning

The 2014 Innovating Pedagogy report describes ‘threshold concepts’ as a trend with significant impact over the next 2-5 years:

“Momentum for using threshold concepts to help teaching is growing across disciplines”.

The idea of threshold concepts emerged from a national research project in the UK, where researchers looked into the possible characteristics of strong teaching and learning environments for undergraduate education. Disciplines have ‘conceptual gateways’ or ‘portals’ that lead to a new, previously inaccessible way of thinking. An example from the social sciences is that ‘you cannot make causal inferences from correlational data’.

A threshold concept is "a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something" (Meyer and Land, 2003).

A threshold concept is “a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

Mastering a threshold concept puts learners in a liminal state where they oscillate between old and emerging understandings – just like an ethnographic researcher who is not outside, but also not quite inside the group he or she is working on.


Meyer and Land (2003, 2005) characterize threshold concepts with the following qualities:

  • transformative (significant shift in the perception of a subject),
  • integrative (exposing a previously hidden interrelatedness),
  • oftentimes bounded (meaning that they separate academic disciplines),
  • probably irreversible (unlikely to be forgotten, or unlearned only through considerable effort)
  • and potentially troublesome (often problematic for learners, because the concept appears counter-intuitive, alien, or incoherent).

Applications in Instructional Design

  • Identifying thresholds for a specific domain
  • Informing curricula design
  • Inspiring lesson planning
  • Developing creative, authentic and meaningful assessment
  • Adopting student-centered, motivating approaches

Further Resources from EdITLib

Kiley, M. & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold Concepts in Research Education and Evidence of Threshold Crossing. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 431-441.

While most work on threshold concepts is related to discipline-specific undergraduate education, this article identifies six generic doctoral-level threshold concepts: Learning challenges experienced by research students and their supervisors. The research involved 65 experienced research supervisors across six countries (Australia, England, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand and Trinidad) and across Humanities, Social Sciences, Engineering and IT and the Sciences.

Chetty, J. & van der Westhuizen, D. (2013). “I hate programming” and Other Oscillating Emotions Experienced by Novice Students Learning Computer Programming. In Jan Herrington et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2013 (pp. 1889-1894). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). View paper as Open Access in EdITLib.

The paper explores the range of of emotional reactions while learning a threshold concept, program dynamics. It helps educators understand students’ emotions so that they are not only communicators of information but also motivators.

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